Deborah Kelleher’s ambitious plan for the Royal Irish Academy of Music

The director took over at a tough time. Now she’s driving the academy's expansion for the 21st century

Deborah Kelleher of the Royal Irish Academy of Music: ‘The solo piano was receding. I was nervous as a solo pianist. There wasn’t enough in it for me to want to continue.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Deborah Kelleher of the Royal Irish Academy of Music: ‘The solo piano was receding. I was nervous as a solo pianist. There wasn’t enough in it for me to want to continue.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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In May 2010, the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) lost its director, John O’Conor, in less than happy circumstances. Those circumstances did not become public until a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) was published the following December. 

The report revealed that in September 2009, the Department of Education, which was providing funding of more than €4 million to the academy, had “refused to sanction the existing arrangements for the director, which it found to be inappropriate in the context of current public service norms”. In 2008, O’Conor had earned €225,500 from the academy for two part-time posts (he also taught there), and was in receipt of un-vouched expenses.

The report noted that the department had requested the academy’s board of governors to “address the matter and take any necessary steps to regularise the situation”. Failure to do so would mean that “the department would reconsider its funding of the academy”.

By the time the damning report was in the news O’Conor’s successor, Deborah Kelleher, had already been chosen. She was 37, 26 years younger than O’Conor, came with business as well as musical qualifications, and was clearly intended as a new broom for a venerable institution that held its first classes on March 1st, 1848, and has been based at the southern end of Westland Row since 1870.

O’Conor had always had an eye on expanding the academy, an ambition best expressed by his success in getting Government support for an Irish Academy for the Performing Arts (IAPA). The project was allocated €44.4 million in 2000. But O’Conor’s ideas for it faced dissent from other music education institutions and disagreement about where the new academy would be located. The venture was dropped in 2003.

The recent announcement of €9 million in public funding towards a €20 million redevelopment of the RIAM’s Westland Row site – with €5.5 million already raised from private sources – is a new direction for the academy. Talk of even partial relocation to the Earlsfort Terrace site of the National Concert Hall is finally off the table, and the RIAM is dealing with its own needs rather than aspiring to a multi-campus, IAPA-style model with “nodes” around the country. 

The project is due to open in 2021, and when completed will deliver a new, 300-seat concert hall, a dedicated opera studio with its own rehearsal space, 75 teaching rooms with adaptable acoustics, a new library, a “sonic arts hub” for electronic music and a dedicated music therapy facility. Third-level student numbers will rise from 150 to 250 and the number of school-age students will double from 1,500 to 3,000. 

I don’t want my students to be trained for export

When I met Deborah Kelleher, I was struck not only by a resoluteness which seems to date from her early childhood, but also an analytic self-awareness that has obviously been a huge advantage in helping her deliver on her goals.

Like most high achievers in the musical world she was put to the piano when she was young. “I was a very dutiful youngster. I did what my teacher told me. So every week I got better.” She has only praise for her teachers – Malcolm Proud, Ann Heneghan and Frank Heneghan – and her fellow students.

“I was really good at the age of maybe 16, 17,” she says, because she was “very gripped by progress. I liked it. I’m not sure that I loved music at first. But I liked aspiration and progression and all that kind of thing. The love of music came when I was in my teens and I moved up to Frank Heneghan, who was an incredibly detailed teacher.

“Then when I came to decide what would I do there was no question but that I would do music. I put two things down on my CAO. I put down music in Trinity and I put down music and English in Trinity and left the rest blank. That’s what one did when one was a student of Frank Heneghan.”

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Deborah Kelleher with Cormac Mac Canna (10), Yikai Zhao(7), Sarah Brazil (10) and Charlotte Croke (11) at the announcement of the development of the redevelopment of the Academy’s Westland Row campus. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, Deborah Keller and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor with Cormac Mac Canna (10), Yikai Zhao (7), Sarah Brazil (10) and Charlotte Croke (11) at the announcement of the development of the redevelopment of the academy’s Westland Row campus. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

She clearly revelled in the musical immersion that Trinity offered, and after she got her degree she studied for a master’s in musicology at UCD where Harry White was an inspiration, “the closest I’ve ever come to a performer, to a Maria Callas or whatever, of the word. He was a diva. I’d never come across this in academic music.”

She taught piano part-time at Dublin Institute of Technology, was a teaching fellow in UCD, did some script-writing at RTÉ, and, on the invitation of Ita Beausang, then acting head of the DIT Conservatory, became an accompanist. “The solo piano was receding. I was nervous as a solo pianist. There wasn’t enough in it for me to want to continue on.”

Yet she was not content to be a jack of all trades. “I wanted to find my way. I was so busy doing everything quite well that something in me just made a decision that I would never turn anything down if I could possibly help it. Even to the point in the late 90s, when I was asked to teach in here at the academy for an hour and a quarter a week, music history to first-year students, I said yes. I’d never been into the academy before then. But I knew there was something about this place as soon as I walked in the door.”

Her next move was into a full-time musicianship job, teaching theory at the academy. She found the place refreshing. “It was an independent music academy, not a faculty in something else. There was an expectation of socialising, of performing, of being at events. There was an expectation that you wouldn’t be a sole trader, going in and out the door all the time. That was different for me, and I liked it. And there was excellence. Everywhere.”

When the head of musicianship post came up, she went for that, too. “But I had never managed anything. I like to go to school, I like to do it when I do something new. So I did an MBA. This was like a reverse hobby. It was the most amazing thing I ever did in my life. I loved every second of it. It was all so new. Learning about marketing, or corporate finance, or organisational behaviour. For a musician it was as extraordinary as understanding late Beethoven.”

She says that she can be a bit of a hypochondriac. “I remember going to the doctor,” she says, laughing at herself. “I could feel my heartbeat. She said, are you doing anything stressful? I said, No. I’m getting married and I’m moving house and I finished my MBA. But I’m not doing anything stressful.” 

The MBA taught her “to look into the distance and think about opportunities. I could see that John [O’Conor] was going to come to the end of his tenure and there was no obvious successor, and I wondered what would I do if I was in that position. I started to think about it. Then, when the job came up, being a female, I thought about what was wrong with me, why wouldn’t I be good. And then I asked myself what could I do that would actually serve the institution. And then I became director in October 2010.”

I went in to that interview to try and make it impossible for them to say no to me. If I didn’t get the job then I was pretty sure I never would

Exactly what was her pitch to get the job? “What made me unique was the fact that I was an educator. I was immersed in conservatoire life. So I knew the product. The other aspect was the MBA. I had a sophisticated knowledge of how organisations work and I had led a team with notable successes – things like the first composition degree were under my aegis.

“The third aspect that I shamelessly sold was my youth. I wasn’t out of the scale young. Bruno Mantovani was 37 when he was appointed to the Paris Conservatoire, and Joseph Polisi 37 when he was appointed to the Juilliard in New York. What I was saying to them was, I will have the energy to drive this, there is nothing I want more, and my whole career to this moment has been about education in music and conservatoire education. I went in to that interview to try and make it impossible for them to say no to me. If I didn’t get the job then I was pretty sure I never would.”

She put together “a kind of book” with different chapters. One was about community, another about the estate, the expansion that would be needed (whether greenfield, remaining in situ, or partnering with an outside organisation), the third about curriculum. She argued for a bespoke vocal degree, because singers develop later and can seem like dunces compared with violinists or pianists who begin their training much, much younger. And she also wanted a young scholar programme or “an accelerated programme for the highly motivated”.

Because of the academy’s size and independence, it can “move quite rapidly, because you’re not looking to a parent department in a university to say that something’s okay. You’re responsible for your own budget.” Eight years is a pretty short time to get to a point of rebuilding most of your site.

That independence of governance was impacted by the C&AG’s report. The academy’s board of governors has been reduced from 35 to 21, although rotation remains limited. Kelleher herself has been on the board for more than 10 years, and some individuals still have positions for life.

The RIAM is not the only board she sits on. She is also on the RTÉ Board, which might seem to have been a hot seat for her, earlier this year, when the national broadcaster decided to let a prime musical asset, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, fall under the direct remit of the Government.

The question, she says, was “What is the best for orchestral provision in Ireland?” And she points to the outcome. “I would like to have at least two thriving orchestras. So I welcomed the outcome of the Boaden review. I don’t want my students to be trained for export.”

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